Inmate Safety Concerns Put Constitutional Rights to Bed

On January 11, 2019, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the case of Olivier v. Baca, finding that former Sheriff Lee Baca did not violate an inmate’s civil rights when he was detained for three days without a bed due to exigent circumstances.

Factual Background

Maurice P. Olivier was arrested in July 2006 for burglary. Following his arrest, he was held at Los Angeles County’s Inmate Reception Center (“IRC”), which is a hub for processing inmates and assigning incoming inmates with permanent housing. It is not a permanent housing facility.

Olivier was later assigned to Men Central’s Jail (“MCJ”). However, while he was being processed for his transfer to MCJ, inmates at jail facilities across the County were engaged in a string of inmate disturbances that persisted for three days. The disturbances resulted in a large proportion of jail staff being reassigned to restore order and respond to the inmate disturbances. Jail staff that did not respond to the disturbances remained in the other areas of the facility but were outnumbered by inmates. As a result, jail facilities were forced to be on lockdown and the IRC had to cancel inmate transfers to other facilities during the lockdowns. For inmate Olivier, this meant that he was at IRC for three and one-half days without a bed. He never asked or materials to sleep on (e.g. a mattress or blankets) and, instead, slept on the floor.

Olivier filed a lawsuit against former Sheriff Lee Baca related to his stay at IRC and alleged his rights under the Fourteenth Amendment (i.e. the right to be free of jail conditions or restrictions that amount to punishment) were violated because he had to sleep on the floor. Olivier argued that the disturbances by inmates and lockdowns did not justify his floor sleeping. The Ninth Circuit disagreed.

The Ninth Circuit’s Reasoning

It is well established that measures to preserve security and order may require limitation or retraction of the retained constitutional rights of both convicted prisoners and pretrial detainees. Correctional officials are given wide-ranging deference to adopt and execute policies and practices that are needed to preserve order and maintain security, and courts must defer to the judgment of correctional officials absent substantial evidence that their policies are an unnecessary or unjustified response to problems of jail security. With respect to inmate disturbances and lockdowns, the Ninth Circuit reiterated that such issues “can delay detention facility procedures and temporarily restrict certain rights without violating” inmates’ civil rights.

The Ninth Circuit affirmed the L.A. Sheriff’s Department was well within the scope of its authority to maintain security when it carried out the lockdowns that delayed Olivier’s transfer to permanent housing, resulting in three-and-one-half days without a bed. The evidence put forth by counsel for Sheriff Baca demonstrated that custody staff was confronted with an emergency situation – a nearly uninterrupted series of riots and civil disturbances involving hundreds of inmates – and its response was reasonable.

Moreover, the Ninth Circuit affirmed that even if Sheriff Baca did violate Olivier’s civil rights, Baca was nevertheless entitled to qualified immunity because it was not clearly established that having an inmate sleep on the floor during exigent circumstances was unconstitutional.

The Takeaway

Correctional officers and facilities should be comforted by the Ninth Circuit’s affirmation that maintaining order and security at jails and prisons during exigent circumstances (e.g. riots) is of critical importance and can warrant the restriction and/or limitation of detainees’ or prisoners’ rights.

Furthermore, it is important to recognize that the Ninth Circuit affirmed that policies and practices implemented by correctional officers that are necessary to preserve order and maintain security should be given deference absent substantial evidence the policy and/or practice was unnecessary or unjustified.

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